Not everything is a ‘harmful trope’

Andrea Raffin/Wikimedia Commons bubbleleh/Wikimedia Commons

What to make of the cinematic age gap between Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan.

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BY JILL GUTOWITZ

Social media has launched many of the most important conversations of the last decade, including #YesAllWomen, #MeToo, and #BlackLivesMatter. But we know how the internet works: There’s a new thing to yell about every day, and within 48 hours, we find another story to scrutinize.

It’s fickle and exhausting. The nature of a website like Twitter, where people effortlessly post and repost contentious takes, can easily create a snowball effect, conducive to creating a culture of preachy wokeness that, to be frank, extends beyond what is fair or realistic to ask of people. Life is not black and white, but the Internet is.

Last Friday, when news broke that Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan would play lovers in an upcoming period film called Ammonite, queer women on Twitter were divided: Some were excited, but many disparaged it as being “problematic,” claiming that age gaps in lesbian movies represent a “harmful trope” that must be stopped. For that reason, I think it’s time we reexamine what exactly a “harmful trope” is.

I’m a gay film and TV critic. I’m not exactly forecasting Oscar winners, but I spend all day, every day watching queer movies and TV shows and culling them for noteworthy stories, tired stereotypes, and groundbreaking sex scenes. In short, I’m about as familiar as one can be with oft-repeated tropes and harmful portrayals of LGBTQ people in media. And trust me, the pool of clichés to be furious about is overflowing. But sometimes I have to admit that I grow frustrated with what we choose to lambast on social media. So when the announcement of Winslet and Ronan’s cinematic romance was met with severe criticism from queer women on Twitter, I was irked.

Many users immediately slammed Ammonite for being “another” lesbian romance movie with a significant age gap. This feels so trivial and unimportant. A trope is defined as “a common or overused theme or device”; a cliché. The word itself doesn’t necessarily imply “harm,” but at very least, tropes carry negative connotations. If a theme or character trait is dubbed a “trope,” we understand that it’s a lazy, perpetual stereotype that we’ve grown tired of seeing.

In queer film and TV, there are dozens of common tropes: Bury Your Gays, in which queer characters are carelessly disposed of and killed off; All Gays are Pedophiles, self-explanatory and flat-out incorrect; or The Predatory Lesbian, also self-explanatory, in which lesbians make their straight friends feel uncomfortable by aggressively hitting on them, something borrowed from toxic masculinity. These are examples of harmful tropes: They’re misleading, inaccurate stereotypes we’ve seen repeated about LGBTQ people in media, and they perpetuate negative perceptions of us in real life. That’s why they’re harmful—because they affect how cis-het people view our community, and the ways in which we internalize homophobia ourselves. There are real-life repercussions to such negative depictions.

There are tropes that aren’t harmful, but still ubiquitous in representations of queer people in film and TV. For example, we’ve seen dozens of coming out stories, and fans and critics often express their frustration with how many coming out stories there are, as opposed to stories about out queer people just living their lives as out, happy gay people. But the facts are that every queer person comes out, and many times, it’s a life-altering moment. Those kinds of memories are worth writing about. So, we have a lot of coming out stories because there are a lot of storytellers who have come out. But just because a significant amount of people have done a thing doesn’t necessarily make the thing a “trope”— it just makes it a shared experience and natural occurrence that happens in real life. Just like couples with age gaps.

That’s why I’m vexed by the Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan squabble. For background, the duo is set to play lovers in a UK coastal town in the 1840s, and the story will follow a romance between them, a paleontologist and London woman, to whom the former becomes a nursemaid. First of all, there aren’t that many lesbian movies to begin with, compared to gay male movies, especially compared to straight movies, or as they’re called in mainstream media: movies.

Second, there really aren’t even that many films about female couples with significant age gaps. Of course, the one that immediately comes to mind is Carol, the 2015 Oscar-nominated film starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. There’s also a smattering of “Schoolgirl and Teacher” indie movies, like Loving Annabelle, Bloomington, and Cracks. Honestly, there are way more lesbian romance movies with couples who are close in age.

But my question is: Why is it bad to have age gaps in lesbian movies? There are plenty of real-life lesbian couples who differ in age, like Sarah Paulson and Holland Taylor, for one. And not for nothing—but how many fucking movies are there about old men with hot, young girlfriends? Straight people aren’t dissecting the ramifications of heterosexual age gaps in media. They’re not calling that a trope—even if it is ubiquitous. Movies like Carol and Ammonite aren’t harming anyone—as in, there’s no real-life harmful repercussions on the LGBTQ community as a result of movie lesbians who differ in age. Ammonite will not cause an outbreak of old lesbians preying on the young and bicurious like a pack of horny zombies.

Personally, I think Lesbian Age Gap Movies—the few there are—are fucking hot. I definitely have some weird mom fetishes, and I enjoy watching a twenty-something actress being taken to bed by Academy Award-winning actresses named Kate (or Cate). I want more representation for lesbians with weird mommy shit. I would love to date a woman twice my age who wags a cigarette in my face as she talks about the lives she’s lived. My point is: Age gaps aren’t a harmful trope—they’re just a natural occurrence being depicted in pop culture.

Because the lesbian community is so used to being underrepresented, overlooked and mistreated in media, we’re always quick to call out something that rubs us the wrong way—because, sincerely, many things do. That cumbersome pang is an emotional response to such mistreatment. The size of the reaction is usually equal to the size of the wound—and with such cavernous wounds, of course we’re going to lash out when we see repetition in our stories. But just because you haven’t experienced something, or it doesn’t represent you and your corner of lesbianism, doesn’t mean that it won’t resonate with other queer people, and make them feel represented.

The same can be argued for tons of lesbian jokes we’ve seen time and time again in film and TV: lesbians wear plaid, we drive Subarus, we U-Haul, we love cats, we watch The L Word, we play sports, we love Fleetwood Mac… Sure, these things aren’t true for all queer women, the same as being a hot girl who falls for a nerdy underdog isn’t true of all straight women. But the fact is these things are true for a lot of lesbians, including me, and that’s OK—as long as it comes from a sincere place, one that isn’t cruel and defamatory. Perspective is everything.

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We can’t be petty about what kinds of movies we’re “allowed” to make. It’s OK if literally 100 movies about queer female couples with big differences in age are made, because the same exists for heterosexual couples. I understand the want for variation in storytelling, but we need to reexamine what kinds of things we “call out” or slam as being “problematic.” Just because we’ve seen it before, doesn’t mean we can’t see it again—as long as we’re not perpetuating negative and false stereotypes about LGBTQ people.

There are conversations we absolutely must be having—like, we need more representation for queer women of color, both on-screen and off. We need trans actors to play trans characters. We need to stop portraying queer women as predatory. We need queer people writing and directing these films, instead of cisgender white men. Let’s focus on what’s important and what changes we really need to see, and stop getting up caught up in calling repetition in storytelling “harmful.” There is natural repetition in life; let there be. *glares in Sarah Paulson*